By Karen Zimbelman
Day in, day out co-ops enrich each of our lives. For some, co-ops bring profound and life-altering improvements to their lives. It’s just this potential that inspires me about co-ops and keeps me hopeful about the ways that co-ops can contribute to a better world for us all.
Here are two stories about the profound and life-changing impact that the co-op business model can have on people’s lives that drew me to co-ops and has kept me working with them for over 35 years.
Those pioneering weavers
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the 28 intrepid textile workers in Rochdale, England, who banded together to form the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844. Tired of the poor quality food and limited goods at high prices available to them at the company store, they sacrificed to scrape money together for over a year and opened their own co-op store. They stood up to their employer at great personal risk to break away from this exploitation. Theirs wasn’t the first co-op to open, but they studied others and codified their practices to leave an enduring legacy for us all.
Where the sun first rises
Fast forward 136 years from the Rochdale Society and I got a first-hand chance to witness the power of co-ops. As a starry-eyed environmental educator, I couldn’t resist the idea of helping run an environmental awareness camp on Fogo Island (Newfoundland). We spent the summer learning about bogs, whales, icebergs, fisheries and the area’s unique environment. That summer, when area fishermen went on strike to protest the low prices they were getting for their cod and crab the Fogo Island Fish Processing Co-op kicked into high gear. Hiking into town from camp, we saw boats stretched far outside of Fogo Harbor. When we asked, we were told: “Fishermen are on strike everywhere in Canada, except here. They don’t strike against their own co-op. The co-op pays fair prices and is taking fish and crab from everyone they can to help as many as possible.”
It would be hard to make the case that my own life has been as profoundly impacted by the many co-ops I’ve worked with as the Rochdale weavers and the Fogo Island fishermen. But these stories are not unique; co-ops help people in big and small ways every single day.
They are quiet economic engines that bring business power and independence into the hands of everyday consumers, workers and producers.
Food co-ops alone provide the economy with billions in sales and pay more than $250 million per year in wages and benefits. Beyond their financial impact, food co-ops educate about healthy food options, support community projects, and buy from local suppliers.
I love the potential co-ops have to make a big difference in the quality of peoples’ lives! Here’s to more of that! For lots more stories about co-ops and the ways they change lives, see the Stories.coop website.
And don’t miss “Five Things You Didn’t Know about Co-ops,” published in October 2013.
About the Author: Karen Zimbelman is the Director of Development Services for National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), a national business services and development co-op based in the U.S. Previously she worked as a trainer and consultant to co-op organizations including three regional cooperative grocers’ associations, Association of Cooperative Educators, North Coast Co-op, National Cooperative Business Association-CLUSA, and NASCO and was executive director of Cooperation Grocers’ Information Network (CGIN). Karen served on the founding board of directors of Frontier Natural Products Co-op and she continues to serve on several co-op boards and committees. She lives in Eureka, Calif., with her husband Chris Copple, who manages a worker co-op, and their dog, Fogo.